Dear Family Advisor

How do I tell my parents they can't live with us anymore?

Last updated:

June 07, 2011
see no evil hear no evil speak no evil

My parents are in their early 80s and live in Atlanta during the winter months. For the past five years, they've moved in with us at the beginning of June, leaving again at the end of October. I have young children, one of whom needs special help. I work part-time and go to school part-time. My husband has a good job, but it requires travel.

We put my parents in an in-law apartment that's comfortable and has a small kitchen. However, they want to be waited on while they're here, though they take care of themselves fine in Atlanta. Another problem: We think my mother may have Alzheimer's disease and that my father is ignoring the problem. She's showing all of the signs, and they're either covering it up or don't want to talk about it.

I've spoken to my brother and sister several times and told them that I've done all that I can handle. My parents only think of themselves, and my own health is becoming affected by the stress. They aren't accepting being elderly very well; my father is mean and complains about my mother all the time. We're considering telling them that we're putting our house up for sale soon and that they can't live with us anymore if we move. Is this the right way to handle the problem?

You sound like an overstressed sandwich-generation mom -- which you are! You have lots on your plate and I suggest that, first of all, you stop worrying about what your siblings will or won't do. If you can get everyone to sit down or Skype to talk about your mom and dad's well-being, then that's great -- but if they all don't see what's really going on, then such a meeting could wind up being more frustrating than helpful.

It sounds as though your parents are elderly enough to not work, but not infirm enough to be bedridden. They're bored. They need things to do, and not necessarily your things (being with the kids, helping you out). Perhaps they feel "kept" at your house instead of leading their own lives. They might resent this setup and balk at it without being able to express how they feel, even to themselves. If they seem to manage in Atlanta, then there's no reason they can't manage wherever they are. As for your dad's complaining, that's just what he does. It doesn't mean he's unhappy -- it's probably an old pattern, so just ignore it.

If you move and they can't come to your house, it might be a decent parting of ways. Figure out where they're going to live if not with you. If you have to be the bossy one in the bunch, then just go for it. Ask for your sisters' involvement, give them "assignments," and remind them that your parents need all of you in different ways -- but if they're not responding, don't wait around. That'll drive you crazy. Do what you have to do. You'll have to live with your own mistakes -- and you will make some -- but that's life. Give yourself permission to bungle your way through this. Laugh at the crazy stuff that's flung your way. Don't be sensitive to what people say or don't say.

The main issue to concern yourself with is your mom's symptoms of dementia. Take her to the doctor/neurologist and get her checked out so you know what you're dealing with. Alzheimer's/dementia medications work best in the beginning.

Last but certainly not least: While your parents need you, your own family needs you more. If you have to choose (and I hope you don't), choose to spend most of your time and energy on your children and your marriage. Life moves forward. That doesn't mean you have to neglect your parents, but focus on what your children need to get a decent start in life, especially since they have special needs. Pour some time, love, and attention into your marriage -- it will only continue to thrive if you nurture it. And, though I know it seems impossible at times, carve out and protect time for yourself. Do at least one thing that helps you cope -- yoga, walking or biking, spending time with a dear friend. Do it religiously, even when it seems as if you don't have time or energy for it.

You'll feel alone much of the time, but do what's right, prioritize, and let go of the rest. You can't make your siblings get involved or your parents happy. Happiness is optional; sometimes you just can't give someone else what they need, because they don't know what they need. And happiness is a choice each of us has to make for ourselves, regardless of our circumstances.